Adding first baseman a perk, but not imperative

Adding first baseman a perk, but not imperative

CLEVELAND -- Much was made of the mysterious trade that Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said he had on the table during the Winter Meetings last month. He teased that reporters could not guess the proposed deal in 50 tries.

So, whatever happened to that trade?

"It didnt happen," Antonetti said during a sit-down with Cleveland reporters on Friday afternoon, "like about 968 others. At that point, we thought we were relatively close. But that changed."

The question now is whether the Indians can avoid striking out on acquiring a first baseman before Spring Training. Cleveland is known to have interest in free agents Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman, but the team has also been checking in on most available options other than free-agent slugger Prince Fielder.

Fielder is in line for a blockbuster contract -- one that will surely exceed the Indians' financial limits -- and his delayed signing has created a kind of logjam on the open market. Antonetti believes that the other first-base options will begin finding homes at an increased pace once Fielder's situation is resolved.

"That's a big part of it," Antonetti said. "Where Prince goes, that could have some secondary impact on the other players that play a similar position."

For now, that means the Indians are in a holding pattern, per se.

Antonetti said Cleveland was not currently a phone call away from completing any major deals, and the GM laughed when asked if two calls might get something done. All Antonetti would admit was that the Indians were exploring multiple avenues -- not just free agency -- in an effort to add some more offfense.

"Our focus hasn't been exclusively on one position," Antonetti said. "I would say it's been very wide ranging. We've considered a variety of different alternatives to improve. Anywhere from trades for younger players, trades for more established guys, free-agent signings. We've really considered a wide variety of alternatives."

Right now, Pena and Kotchman appear to be high on the Tribe's list.

Last season with the Cubs, the 33-year-old Pena hit .225 with 28 home runs and 80 RBIs in 153 games while earning $10 million. Agent Scott Boras netted that salary for Pena after he hit .196 with 28 homers and 84 RBIs the previous season with Tampa Bay. This winter, it is believed that Pena is seeking a multi-year contract.

Earlier this week, The Plain Dealer reported that Antonetti approached club ownership to discuss freeing up the necessary funds to sign a player like Pena. If the asking price reaches the $7-10 million range, it could put Cleveland in a situation where it needs to free up salary space via subsequent trades.

The Indians would obviously prefer to avoid that type of scenario.

"We have some flexibility," Antonetti said. "Obviously, it's not unending, but we have some flexibility to continue to improve the team. Now, whether or not that flexibility and individual players' desires will align on value and fit, which are both important parts of the equation, we don't know yet. We're continuing to work on it."

Pena's primary flaws are his low batting average and his high strikeout rate (at least 158 strikeouts in each of the past four years). Kotchman, who earned $750,000 last season with the Rays, hit .306 with a .378 on-base percentage and only 66 strikeouts in 500 at-bats last year, but he does not boast Pena's power.

Both Pena and Kotchman are left-handed hitters -- something Cleveland has plenty of, at the moment. The Indians project to have six pure lefties in the lineup with two switch-hitters in the mix as well. The Tribe believes a left-handed-hitting first baseman might make the most sense, though, given the situation with Carlos Santana.

The switch-hitting Santana, who is Cleveland's regular catcher, will likely play first base against left-handed pitching. That would mean backup catcher Lou Marson (.297 average against lefties in 2011) would start on those days. Having a left-handed first baseman to face right-handed pitching could be advantageous.

As of right now, it is not clear if Pena or Kotchman would be more willing than the other to accept such a role. That said, it is not even clear whether the Indians will be able to add a first baseman before Opening Day. Cleveland continues to search for a solution, but the team is also confident in its current roster.

"We'd like to try to do something," Antonetti said. "But I wouldn't say it's imperative. I think we feel good about the foundation of players that we have. ... We're in a good spot, but certainly we'd like to improve upon that."

First base was hardly the only issue addressed by Antonetti during Friday's wide-ranging chat with reporters.

While shooting down the idea of bringing Manny Ramirez back to Cleveland, saying that it was "not a positional fit" for the club, Antonetti also noted that starter Ubaldo Jimenez came down with the flu recently, explaining why the pitcher made just one winter ball start in the Dominican Republic. Antonetti also made it clear that Jack Hannahan and Lonnie Chisenhall will be competing for the starting third-base job this spring.

The most pressing problem, however, remains at first base.

Cleveland felt it had its answer in Matt LaPorta, but injuries and poor performance have plagued his previous few seasons. Antonetti said Indians hitting coach Bruce Fields spent four days with LaPorta in Florida this week, working with him on his swing. Fields came away encouraged.

"Matt understands that this is an important year for him," Antonetti said. "Bruce came back really excited with what he saw. He feels that Matt has a much better feel for his swing. He's made some adjustments with his swing and is building upon a strong foundation coming into camp."

If the Indians do not sign or acquire a first baseman, LaPorta and Shelley Duncan are the top internal candidates for the position. Of the two, only LaPorta has an option, meaning he can be sent to the Minor Leagues without being exposed to waivers. That means a strong camp will likely be needed for LaPorta to make the Opening Day roster.

Antonetti said LaPorta's chances of making the team out of Spring Training will not be "results based," indicating that the Indians' evaluators will instead focus on the consistency of his swing fundamentals and approach at the plate.

The Indians are searching for an alternative, but Antonetti believes his team already has the ability to compete for the American League Central crown.

"We feel like we have the foundation to contend for the division," he said.

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.